Madison is Wisconsin’s second city. Centered on a narrow strip of land – referred to by locals and in this guide as, simply, “the Isthmus” – between Lakes Mendota and Monona, it’s the economic hub of south-central Wisconsin, the home of the University of Wisconsin system’s main campus, and the state capital.
Madison is a happening city. It’s routinely ranked among the United States’ best college towns and earns more than its fair share of “best places to live” accolades to boot. The 235,000 who call the city proper home and 640,000 fleshing out the metropolitan population enjoy an enviable quality of life – far better than their counterparts in gritty Milwaukee, just 70 miles to the east.
Though Madison doesn’t really qualify as a vacation town, it’s undeniably a beautiful place, with ample parkland, densely vegetated residential neighborhoods, and two gleaming lakes rimmed with public space. Even if you have no business with Wisconsin’s state government or any of the fine folks at UW-Madison, it’s well worth a weekend visit.
I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Madison over the course of the last decade. While I can’t claim to be a local, I can certainly help you see the place through locals’ eyes. Read on to learn more about what to do in Wisconsin’s fairest city – and how to keep your visit’s budget from spiraling out of control.
Discounts, Deals, Tours, and Resources
1. Groupon Madison
Groupon’s Madison portal boasts an ever-shifting mix of daily deals and longer-term discounts for visitors and residents alike. If you’re in town for just a few days, I’d recommend starting with the food and drink deals section, since you’ll probably find yourself eating out at restaurants at least once or twice.
2. Nimbledeals Madison
Nimbledeals Madison is another local deals site. Though it’s not nearly as comprehensive as Groupon, it does have a pretty wide range of partner businesses, including eateries and locally owned retailers. If you’re looking to sample a new culinary experience or pick up a gift you can only find in Madison, check here first.
3. Madison on the Cheap
Madison on the Cheap is an independently run discount blog with a great roundup of free or cheap events in Madison and an apparently comprehensive directory of thrift and resale stores around town. I’d recommend checking with featured vendors or event sponsors directly before making plans – I spotted a few out-of-date deals during my brief review of the site.
Historic Sites and Attractions
Here’s a look at Madison’s top historic sites and noteworthy attractions.
1. Monona Terrace
- Adult admission: Free (ticketed events may carry admission charge)
- Hours: Interior is open daily, 8am to 5pm; terrace is open Sunday through Thursday, 8am to 10pm, and Friday and Saturday, 8am to 12am
Monona Terrace is Madison’s main convention center. Originally conceived by Frank Lloyd Wright back in the 1930s, it ended up being decades in the making – finally opening to the public in 1997.
If you’re traveling to Madison for a major conference or industry event, there’s a decent chance you’ll find yourself at Monona Terrace in the normal course of business. If not, check it out anyway: The lakefront deck offers breathtaking views of Lake Monona, particularly at sunrise and sunset. After dark, grab a cocktail at Lake Vista Cafe and watch the city lights dance on the water.
2. Wisconsin Historical Museum
- Adult admission: $5
- Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 9am to 5pm; Sunday, 11am to 4pm
Wisconsin Historical Museum is a family-friendly museum operated by the Wisconsin Historical Society. Come at 1pm daily for free tours led by enthusiastic guides in period garb, or spin through with the kids on your own.
3. Lathrop Hall
- Adult admission: Free (ticketed events may carry an admission charge)
- Hours: Variable – check with the university
Back in the day, Lathrop Hall was the ladies’ social hub on the then-gender-segregated UW-Madison campus. Today, it’s the headquarters for the university’s well-regarded dance program – and widely regarded as one of Madison’s most architecturally significant structures.
4. Camp Randall Stadium
- Adult admission: Free (games require ticket purchase)
- Hours: Variable – check with the university
Named for a major U.S. Army outpost that trained and housed Union soldiers during the Civil War, Camp Randall Stadium has been home field for the University of Wisconsin Badgers football team since 1917. It holds upwards of 80,000 fans – not quite as capacious as some other Big Ten stadiums, but still bigger than any NFL stadium built to date.
5. First Unitarian Society Meeting House
- Adult admission: Free events and worship; tours are $10
- Hours: Tours run May 1 through September 30 at 10:30am and 2:30pm daily
The First Unitarian Society Meeting House is one of Madison’s most distinguished congregations. Frank Lloyd Wright’s father was among its founding members, and the famed architect helped design the original Landmark Auditorium. Friday musical performances and Saturday services are free and open to the public, regardless of religious persuasion (or non-persuasion).
6. Mansion Hill Historic District
Located at the southwestern end of the Isthmus, along Lake Mendota, Mansion Hill is one of Madison’s oldest neighborhoods – and, historically, one of its most exclusive. Italianate and Queen Anne mansions dot the neighborhood, many dating to the Civil War era or just after. The highlight is the Old Executive Mansion, but several other buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places and well worth a close-up look. Just be mindful of property lines – this is a residential neighborhood, after all.
7. Third Lake Ridge Historic District
Third Lake Ridge Historic District is another centrally located historic district worth a stroll, weather permitting. It’s close to downtown and adjacent to Mansion Hill. If you have an hour or two, you can hit all the highlights in both districts without ever getting into your car.
Museums and Cultural Institutions
For a relatively small city, Madison has a bevy of top-flight cultural institutions and museums. Notably, many are free – a nice contrast with big-city institutions, which can and often do get away with charging premiums for admission.
The following are among the most popular and accessible for visitors.
8. Wisconsin State Capitol
- Adult admission: Free
- Hours: Monday through Friday, 8am to 6pm; Saturday and Sunday, 8am to 4pm; tours leave on the hour
Perched atop the highest point of the Isthmus, the Wisconsin State Capitol is the most prominent building in Madison and the de facto center of town. (Sorry, UW campus.) Having seen my fair share of state capitol buildings, I can say with confidence that it’s an above-average one: a brilliant white dome with stately columns deliberately set off the city’s street grid, like a smaller version of the United States Capitol in D.C. The park-like green space surrounding the structure is delightful on warm, sunny days, though the views aren’t quite as good as you’d expect from such an elevated vantage.
Inside, things are even more interesting. Adorned with more than 40 varieties of stone and soaring to more than 200 feet above ground level, the rotunda is staggering. The galleries are no less awesome. The best – really, only – way to experience the place is to latch onto one of the free tours, which leave on the hour when the Capitol is open.
9. Madison Museum of Contemporary Art
- Adult admission: Free
- Hours: Sunday and Tuesday through Thursday, 12pm to 5pm; Friday, 12pm to 8pm; Saturday, 10am to 8pm
Madison Museum of Contemporary Art is a free museum whose permanent collection boasts more than 5,000 works, many of which originated with Wisconsin-based or -bred artists. The place has more than a half-dozen temporary exhibitions going at any given time, with mixed media and sculpture accounting for a disproportionate share of the offerings. Stop by in the evening for (complimentary) performances and informal talks.
10. Chazen Museum of Art
- Adult admission: Free
- Hours: Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday, 9am to 5pm; Thursday, 9am to 9pm; Saturday and Sunday, 11am to 5pm
Located on UW-Madison’s lakeside campus, Chazen Museum of Art is Madison’s premier art museum. Its collection features more than 20,000 works spanning thousands of years, from early history through to the 20th and 21st centuries. Three galleries are entirely given over to temporary exhibitions; recent examples include “Fantastic Illustration from the Korshak Collection” and “Certainty and Doubt: Paintings by Dan Ramirez.” Wisconsin artists are well-represented here, though the sheer breadth of the collection prevents them from dominating the proceedings.
11. University of Wisconsin-Madison Geology Museum
- Adult admission: Free
- Hours: Monday through Friday, 8:30am to 4:30pm; Saturday, 9am to 1pm
If you like rocks and fossils, UW-Madison Geology Museum is a must-see. Founded in 1848, the place has more than 120,000 geological and paleontological (fossil) specimens spanning billions of years of planetary history.
Highlights include an extensive collection of Jurassic dinosaur and early bird fossils, Cretaceous rocks featuring fossilized remains of some of the last dinosaurs to walk the planet, and one of the best-preserved collections of Silurian invertebrates anywhere on Earth. Download a free tour pamphlet from the website before you visit – it’s the best way to know for sure what you’re looking at.
12. Madison Children’s Museum
- Adult admission: $7.95
- Hours: Tuesday through Sunday, 9:30am to 5pm
Bringing kids to Madison? They need to see Madison Children’s Museum – as much for your sake as theirs. There’s just no better way to keep kids occupied for an afternoon (or longer) in Wisconsin’s capital city. Hands-on highlights include a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired architecture exhibit, a replica log cabin, an urban garden, an art studio, and much more. Check the online calendar for periodic special events – usually in the evening, always kid-friendly.
13. L.R. Ingersoll Physics Museum
- Adult admission: Free (donations welcome)
- Hours: Monday through Friday, 8am to 4pm
L.R. Ingersoll Physics Museum is another UW-Madison museum with a long, storied history: in this case, stretching back to the early 20th century. It’s filled with kid-friendly, hands-on exhibits demonstrating key physics concepts, marking important milestones in scientific history, or both. The museum has about 65 exhibits in all. You’re welcome to explore the place at your own pace, but private or semiprivate tours are available upon request at no charge.
14. Wisconsin Veterans Museum
- Adult admission: Free
- Hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 9am to 4:30pm; Sunday, 12am to 4pm
Perched on Capitol Square, in the heart of Madison, Wisconsin Veterans Museum is one of the country’s oldest institutions dedicated specifically to the men and women of the U.S. Armed Forces. The permanent collection is a far-ranging look at the conflicts in which Wisconsin vets have participated – basically, everything from the Civil War on. Temporary exhibits hone in on specific themes or conflicts, such as World War II or trench fighting.
15. Wisconsin Science Museum
- Adult admission: Free
- Hours: Wednesday and Friday, 12pm to 5pm; Thursday, 2pm to 7pm; Saturday, 9am to 3pm
The Wisconsin Science Museum is a first-rate institution focusing “on Wisconsin’s unique history and continuous success as an innovative center of science, engineering, and biotechnology.” Though free admission is a nice perk, the museum’s truncated and unpredictable hours are troublesome for drop-in visitors – it’s best to call ahead before stopping by. If the place is open when you arrive, you’ll be treated to a Wisconsin science hall of fame, a detailed exhibit on imaging technology, a robotics playground, and a deep dive into the rapidly evolving biotech industry.
16. National Mustard Museum
- Adult admission: Free (donations and gift shop purchases encouraged)
- Hours: Daily, 10am to 5pm
The National Mustard Museum takes the cake (or condiment, perhaps) for the Madison area’s weirdest museum. Located in suburban Middleton, it’s not exactly on the beaten path, but it’s straightforward to reach with a rental or personal vehicle. You can learn all about the history and variety of mustard in the MustardPiece Theatre, sample hundreds of mustard varieties at the tasting bar, and buy “more different mustards at the Museum Gift Shop than anywhere else on the planet,” according to the museum’s website. Sounds fun.
Parks, Lakes, and Natural Areas in and Around Madison
Madison is renowned for its parkland and open space. This is a rundown of the major parks, reserves, and natural features in or just outside Madison proper. Unless otherwise noted, all are free to enter and explore, subject to posted open hours and other restrictions on usage and parking. As always, use caution at night.
17. Lake Mendota
Lake Mendota is the larger of Madison’s two principal lakes, comprising the Isthmus’ northwestern bound. With two marinas and five public beaches, Mendota is a busy recreation destination during the warm season. Refer to Madison Parks for up-to-date information about canoe, kayak, and stand up paddle board rentals.
Once Lake Mendota freezes, typically in late December, it transforms into a popular ice fishing spot. The trails ringing much of the lake are popular with joggers and bikers year-round.
18. Lake Monona
Lake Monona is smaller than Mendota, but no less picturesque. Though the Isthmus side is pretty densely built, there’s plenty of shoreside parkland in the residential quarters northeast of the Capitol. And, with a smaller circumference than its big sibling, fitness vacationers can realistically circuit the whole thing before breakfast. Boating is popular here too – arrive early in summer to ensure you get a rental.
19. University of Wisconsin-Madison Main Campus
The University of Wisconsin-Madison campus stretches for hundreds of acres along the south shore of Lake Mendota, west of Madison’s downtown scrum. Student or not, it’s a great place to run or bike on warm days, even if you’re not interested in the historic academic structures dotting the quads. Just be sure to steer clear of areas that may require a student ID to enter, such as the student union terrace.
20. Olbrich Botanical Gardens
- Adult admission: Free to enter the outdoor gardens (donations welcome); $2 for the Bolz Conservatory
- Hours: April through September, daily, 8am to 8pm; October, daily, 9am to 6pm; November through March, daily, 9am to 4pm
Olbrich Botanical Gardens is a 16-acre spread on the northeast shore of Lake Monona. The main attraction is the impressively designed outdoor native landscaping gardens, which include meticulously recreated prairie meadows and hardy flowering shrubs found throughout the rural Upper Midwest. Also worth checking out is the Bolz Conservatory, an indoor tropical garden open (and steaming) year-round. It’s definitely worth the $2 admission charge.
21. Henry Vilas Zoo
- Adult admission: Free
- Hours: Daily, 9:30am to 5pm
With more than 750,000 annual visitors, Henry Vilas Zoo is one of Madison’s most popular attractions. Situated on 28 quiet acres southwest of downtown Madison, it’s part of a shrinking cohort of municipally owned, totally free zoos – there’s absolutely no charge to enter or park, no matter when you visit. Highlights include an enclosed tropical aviary, spacious big cat habitats, and a diverse collection of polar mammals.
22. Pheasant Branch Conservancy
- Adult admission: Free
- Hours: 24/7
Pheasant Branch Conservancy is a 160-acre expanse of largely wild forest and savanna just northwest of Lake Mendota. Much of the conservancy occupies an elevated swathe of semi-open land with stunning views of the lakes, Capitol dome, and university campus. This is a great place for a quiet nature hike within easy driving distance of central Madison. As the name suggests, it’s a fantastic spot for birdwatching as well. Don’t miss the burbling springs that supply most of Lake Mendota’s water. Bring your camera!
23. University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum
- Adult admission: Free
- Hours: Daily, 7am to 10pm (visitor center has shorter hours – see website for details)
Clear across town from Pheasant Branch is the UW-Madison Arboretum, a far larger (1,200 acres, with another 500-plus in outlying parcels) expanse that features natural forest, savanna, grassland, and wetland habitats.
Follow any trail from the parking lot and you’ll soon find yourself in an intimate natural environment restored from disused farmland to a more-or-less pristine state – the way it appeared since the end of the last Ice Age, when the vast prehistoric glaciers receded north for the last time. Highlights include a vast collection of native flowering trees and lilac repository whose bright colors and intoxicating scents draw crowds in mid-spring.
24. Warner Park
Warner Park occupies 213 acres of prime land on Lake Mendota’s northeastern shore, north of the exclusive enclave of Maple Bluff. Much of the park is essentially wildland, but there’s a slew of ball fields, lawns, and waterfront access points, plus a popular recreation center with regular programming for residents and nonresidents. Come here to jog, picnic, or join a pickup basketball game.
25. Governor Nelson State Park
Governor Nelson State Park is a smaller, no less beautiful park further north along Lake Mendota. It’s best known for its small but tidy beach and trail-studded prairie habitat. You can circuit the entire eight-mile trail network in the morning and enjoy a hearty bag lunch in the picnic shelter come noon. Note that vehicle admission stickers are required for drive-ins: $8 daily for Wisconsin plates and $11 daily for out-of-staters.
26. Lake Kegonsa State Park
Lake Kegonsa State Park spreads along the shores of its namesake lake, which occupies a shallow trough between Madison and the smaller city of Stoughton. Its swimming beach is usually uncrowded, even on hot summer days, and its 3,200-acre expanse is plenty big enough to support a lively sailing and fishing trade. The same vehicle admission rates apply.
Neighborhoods and Local Attractions in Madison
Get a better feel for Wisconsin’s most livable city with this guide to Madison’s notable neighborhoods and local attractions.
27. Capitol Area and Downtown Madison
The area between the Capitol building and UW-Madison’s campus is Madison’s nerve center: the busiest, most built-up part of town.
State Street, Madison’s pedestrian-friendly main drag, is the heart of the action, with restaurants, bars, and independently owned shops galore. During the school year, this area gets pretty rowdy after dark, especially on weekends (which begin on Thursday night here). But it’s definitely the place to hit the town in Madison.
The blocks around the Capitol are more staid. This area is the heart of Madison’s white-collar economy. After dark, you’re more likely to see overworked lawyers hustling home than drunken college students up to no good. Capitol Square, the superblock atop which the Capitol building sits, plays host to many of Madison’s top outdoor cultural events:
- Concerts on the Square, an annual summer production of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra
- Art Fair on the Square, a mid-July extravaganza that’s grown into one of the Midwest’s top art festivals
- Jazz at Five, a month-long run of evening jazz performances
Marquette is a leafy, predominantly residential neighborhood on Madison’s east side, comprising the Isthmus’ northeastern quadrant. Many of the stately old homes here have spare bedrooms for rent – great news for students spending a semester in town. Williamson Street, which bisects the neighborhood, sports an eclectic collection of restaurants, cafes, and brewpubs – more than one can sample on a short visit, but not an insurmountable challenge for longer-term stays.
If you’re in town on the first full weekend of June, don’t miss the Waterfront Festival, a popular two-day bash held in beautiful Yahara Place Park on Lake Monona.
29. Eken Park
Eken Park is a quiet neighborhood northeast of Marquette, beyond the Isthmus. For outsiders, the highlight here is the namesake public park, a leafy expanse popular with dog walkers and picnickers. The Eken Park Festival, held in mid-August, features an afternoon and evening of local food and free live music.
30. Maple Bluff
Maple Bluff is an independent village on the east shore of Lake Mendota, entirely surrounded by Madison itself. It’s an exclusive place, but that doesn’t mean you can’t sneak in and enjoy prime views of Lake Mendota and downtown Madison from Burrows Park. Also fun: aspirational house-hunting amid the conspicuously large residential lots off Lakewood Boulevard.
Occupying the other half of the Isthmus’ eastern end, along the shore of Lake Mendota, Tenney-Lapham is a mirror image of Marquette. I’ve spent more time here (and, to a lesser extent, in Marquette) than any other slice of Madison, and I can say without hesitation that it’s a delightful place. For upscale coffee, check out Johnson Public House, then head over to Avenue Club for an authentic Wisconsin supper club experience.
32. Dane County Farmers’ Market
The Saturday Dane County Farmers’ Market, better known as Saturdays on the Square, is a vast farmers’ market that pops up every Saturday from mid-April to mid-November, rain or shine. This is the best place in town to buy local produce, bar none. If you’re in town during the holidays, check out the Holiday Market, which features crafts, prepared foods, and root veggies galore.
33. South Madison Farmers’ Market
South Madison Farmer’s Market is a smaller market featuring hard-to-find specialty vegetables from independent vendors. Much of the produce found here is hyperlocal, grown on small plots within or just outside Madison’s city limits. When you shop here, you’re supporting the folks who keep Madison’s most diverse neighborhoods humming – and, in all likelihood, learning a thing or two about rare produce in the process.
Day Trips and Excursions From Madison
Have a day or two to spare? Simply stir-crazy? These destinations are all within a half-day’s drive (or less) of central Madison. Most are doable in a single day.
34. Devil’s Lake State Park
Located north of Madison, near Baraboo, Devil’s Lake State Park is Wisconsin’s largest, most popular state park, and its third-oldest. When you visit, you’ll see why.
The centerpiece is a deep glacial lake rimmed by steep moraines, the highest of which soars some 500 feet above the lake’s surface and affords panoramic views of the rugged countryside. Curious rock formations dot the park, including atop the signature promontory. With 29 miles of trails, you can spend a full day outdoors at Devil’s Lake and still not see everything it has to offer. Standard state park vehicle admission fees apply: $8 for in-staters and $11 for out-of-staters.
35. Wisconsin Dells
Wisconsin Dells is a small city about an hour north of Madison. Named for a series of sandstone rock formations lining the nearby Wisconsin River, it’s the anchor of a four-county region known simply as the Dells. Strategically located about halfway between Chicago and Minneapolis, this is one of the Midwest’s most popular family vacation destinations, with more water parks and lakeside resorts than you can count on both hands and feet.
If you have small kids, the Dells is a great place to visit. And the regional hospitality industry’s competitiveness definitely works to your advantage: Local resorts engage in an eternal arms race to keep rooms and waterslides full, with the best deals typically appearing in late fall and early spring. Check out Dells.com and WisDells.com for package deals.
36. Spring Green
Nestled in the picturesque Wisconsin River valley, Spring Green is a small town with a big history. It’s best known as the home of famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright and his original masterpiece, Taliesin. An abbreviated studio and theater tour costs $22 per person; a whole-house tour runs $53 per person.
South of town, in the hills above the river, is the Wright-inspired House on the Rock, a far-out architectural dream that doubles as an event space. Admission is $30, but there’s no time limit, and the cantilevered viewing platform revealing near-panoramic valley views is almost enough to justify the cost.
If you’re not an architecture buff, no worries. Downtown Spring Green has more than its fair share of independent art galleries, low-key cafes, and unfussy restaurants serving up local game and produce whenever possible. This being Wisconsin, there’s also a popular artisanal cheesemaker nearby: Cedar Grove Cheese.
37. Lower Wisconsin State Riverway
Running some 93 miles from the Prairie du Sac dam to the river’s junction with the mighty Mississippi, Lower Wisconsin State Riverway is an ecological and recreational treasure spanning nearly 100,000 acres in all.
The best way to see the riverway in a day is by car. Just take U.S. Highway 14 west from Spring Green to Gotham, then Wisconsin Highway 60 to the junction with U.S. Highway 18. If you have time, keep going into Prairie du Chien, a beautiful river town at the base of the towering Mississippi bluffs. Then retrace your route, or cross the river and double back on County Road C and Wisconsin Highway 133.
Alternatively, try a one-way (downstream) canoe float. According to the Wisconsin DNR, there are nearly two dozen boat launches along the riverway, though you’ll want to check ahead for regulations and restrictions at each. Bring camping gear, observe posted “no trespassing” signs along the bank, and don’t forget to arrange pickup.
38. New Glarus
Nestled in the rolling hills southeast of Madison, New Glarus calls itself “America’s Little Switzerland.” Setting aside the question of other U.S. towns potentially laying claim to that title, New Glarus definitely maintains a consistent theme in its architecture, signage, food, and even language. (But don’t worry too much: English is the dominant language here.)
New Glarus really shines during the holidays, when downtown businesses chip in to do the place up like a miniature Alpine Christmas village. The biggest single attraction, open year-round, is New Glarus Brewing Company, a beloved Wisconsin icon that’s all but unknown outside the Upper Midwest. Call in advance for behind-the-scenes hard hat tours.
39. Glacial Drumlin State Trail
Glacial Drumlin State Trail is probably Wisconsin’s best-known long-distance bike trail. It runs for 52 miles between the Madison exurb of Cottage Grove and the Milwaukee suburb of Waukesha, almost due east. Along the way, it traverses a pastoral landscape of oblong glacial hills, cultivated fields, cow pastures, wetlands, and oak forests.
Truly dedicated cyclists can do an out-and-back in a single day. Are you up for the challenge?
You Might Also Like: Prefer touring the countryside on two legs, rather than on an uncomfortable bike seat? Check out our list of the best long-distance hiking trails to escape civilization. One passes through Wisconsin!
40. Mount Horeb
Mount Horeb gives new meaning to the term, “trolling.” Populated mostly by the descendants of its original Norwegian settlers, this little town modestly bills itself as the “Troll Capital of America.”
As with New Glarus, it’s hard to independently verify this claim, but there’s definitely a case to be made: Wood-carved troll statues leer out from unexpected perches along otherwise quiet residential streets, and the downtown area’s architecture has a vaguely menacing underworld vibe. The center of town is less than 30 minutes from downtown Madison, making for an easy afternoon excursion.
41. Blue Mound State Park
Blue Mound State Park surrounds the highest point in southern Wisconsin. The views from atop the namesake point are nothing short of extraordinary. Some 20 miles of well-maintained hiking trails surround the panorama. If you visit on a warm day, don’t forget your swimsuit – the spacious pool here is rarely crowded, on account of the isolation. Mind the $8/$11 state park vehicle fee.
42. Green Bay
Green Bay is a midsize industrial city at the head of its namesake, a long bay separated from the main lobe of Lake Michigan by the beautiful Door Peninsula (which itself is well worth a visit).
With all due respect to the honest folks who populate this Rust Belt town, Green Bay would be far less remarkable were it not for its most famous denizens: the Green Bay Packers, Wisconsin’s only NFL team.
You don’t have to be a fan, or care about American football at all, to grasp the Packers’ import: They’re the sole relic of an earlier, rosier epoch in American sports history, when the action on the field was more important than the bottom line and otherwise anonymous towns could support thriving professional clubs. In fact, the Packers are the only remaining publicly owned, nonprofit NFL team. More than 360,000 die-hard fans own shares in the team, according to CNN.
The center of the action is Lambeau Field, the Packers’ storied home field. Good luck getting a game-day ticket. Instead, call ahead for tour hours or head over to Titletown Park for a closer look at the complex (and a great place to picnic on warm days). Afterward, grab a pint at Titletown Brewing Company.
As Wisconsin’s largest city, Milwaukee deserves more than a quick in-and-out day trip, even if its proximity to Madison makes such brief excursions more than plausible.
Milwaukee highlights include:
- Two professional sports teams, the Milwaukee Brewers (MLB) and Milwaukee Bucks (NBA), playing at Miller Park and BMO Harris Bradley Center (though a new arena is in the works)
- Harley-Davidson Museum, a gearhead wonderland devoted to one of Milwaukee’s most famous consumer brands
- Discovery World, a world-class science and technology museum
- Milwaukee Art Museum, one of the largest art museums by square footage in the U.S.
- Pabst Mansion, a sprawling Gilded Age home built by a local beer magnate
- Multiple breweries open for tours, including the Miller Brewing Company’s sprawling complex near downtown
Here’s what you need to know about timing, planning, and executing your visit to the Madison area.
When to Visit
Like the rest of the Upper Midwest, Madison has a four-season climate marked by cold, snowy winters and hot, humid summers. The transitional seasons are often unpredictable: Snow and freezing weather occur as late as mid-May and as early as mid-October, and the mercury can push 70 degrees as early as mid-March and as late as mid-November.
Madison’s warm months are noticeably wetter than its cool months. Summer thunderstorms are relatively common here, but they rarely last all day, so it should be possible to avoid getting soaked (or at least to plan indoor activities when storms are likely).
Though winter is dry in absolute terms – January averages just 1.22 inches of precipitation, compared with 4.53 inches in June – it’s rare for a week to go by without accumulating snowfall. Major snowstorms are less common, but still possible, and they’re actually more likely at the beginning and end of the cold season (November through mid-December and March through mid-April). If you’re arriving in Madison by car during the winter, you’ll want to watch the forecast carefully and adjust your plans to avoid highway travel during the height of the storm. Otherwise, wear weather-appropriate clothing (more on that below) and you’ll have a grand time sightseeing in the bracing air – or huddling in well-heated interiors.
Weather-wise, the best months to visit Madison are probably June and September. Though truly steamy weather remains possible during these months, it’s less likely than at the height of summer, when stickiness is the norm. The average June high is 78 degrees and the average low is 56 degrees. September is a tad cooler: 72 degrees and 50 degrees, respectively.
Crowd Considerations and Special Events
Unlike major outdoor vacation destinations, Madison doesn’t really have high and low seasons. But visitor volumes definitely fluctuate throughout the year.
Madison is noticeably more crowded when the University of Wisconsin is in full swing – roughly late August through early May, with interludes around the winter holidays and spring break – and when the state legislature is in session.
Things are especially busy on UW football home game weekends, when Madison seems to temporarily transform into a giant tailgate party. Unless you’re visiting for the game or the game-day atmosphere, avoid those early fall jubilees. Halloween and St. Patrick’s Day are both big deals here too. They’re among the biggest going-out nights for Madison residents and visitors alike. Plan accordingly if you’re staying downtown.
Otherwise, check the City of Madison’s events page for more information about specific events. Some, such as the Madison Marathon, disrupt traffic flows across a wide swathe of the city, but most are localized and manageable.
What to Bring
While this is by no means a complete packing list, these items will serve you well in Madison:
- Temperature-Appropriate Clothing and Accessories. Madison is a four-season town, so the timing of your visit will definitely affect what you bring. In summer, ward off heat and humidity with breathable cotton outerwear, sturdy sandals or lightweight shoes, shorts or dresses, and the like. If you burn easily, hats and sunscreen are essential as well. In winter, you’ll need water-wicking underlayers, sheddable middle layers (like fleece sweaters or zip-ups), and a well-insulated, preferably waterproof coat. Don’t forget winter accessories like knit hats, scarves, cowls, and gloves. If you plan to spend long periods outdoors during the cold season, bring a face mask (balaclava) too. In the transitional seasons, subtract the heavy outer layers and go with a light- to medium-weight jacket, long pants, and possibly a hat and light gloves. But be sure to check the forecast a couple days before your visit, as Madison is renowned for unpredictable and unseasonable weather throughout the year.
- Comfortable Backpack. Bring an ample, comfortable backpack to carry extra clothing, snacks, water, and any other items you need as you explore Madison and its environs. Backpacks are particularly important for visitors planning hikes or bike rides.
- Rain Gear. Madison doesn’t really have a “dry season,” though winter is definitely less wet than summer. No matter when you visit, bring water-resistant boots and bags, an umbrella, and a poncho or heavier raincoat (depending on season).
- Winter Car Safety Kit. If you’re arriving in Madison by car during the winter, keep a winter safety kit in your car. Your kit should include basic snow- and ice-removal equipment, such as ice melt, antifreeze, low-temperature washer fluid, windshield scraper, and shovel. It also needs emergency supplies to tide you over for at least 12 hours if your car becomes disabled in a storm: emergency radio, blankets, food, extra clothing, and the like. Also, don’t forget jumper cables – you should have these anyway, but they’re especially useful in cold weather.
Getting to Madison
Most people arrive in Madison by car or air. Here’s what you need to know about getting here.
Driving or Busing to Madison
Madison is located in south-central Wisconsin. Milwaukee, the state’s largest city, is just over an hour by car to the east. On a good traffic day, the outskirts of Chicago materialize about two hours out of town. And the Twin Cities – Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota – lie less than four hours to the northwest.
Not surprising, then, that Madison is a popular road trip destination. If you live anywhere in the Upper Midwest – Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, northern Illinois, Upper Michigan – driving your personal vehicle to Madison is likely the most convenient option.
If you’re living without a car, or simply don’t feel like spending hours behind the wheel to start and end your trip, you can also bus to Madison.
Megabus, a low-cost U.K. import that offers a reasonably priced and far more comfortable alternative to Greyhound, has two stops in Madison: University of Wisconsin campus (Langdon St. and N Park Street Eastbound) and Dutch Mill Park and Ride. Megabus runs direct routes between Madison and four Midwest cities: Milwaukee, Chicago, St. Paul, and Minneapolis. Depending on the time of day and day of the week, round-trip fares range from less than $20 to about $35.
Flying to Madison
If you’re coming to Madison from outside the Upper Midwest and your visit isn’t part of a longer road trip, flying is probably your best bet.
Just a few miles northeast of downtown Madison is Dane County Regional Airport, south-central Wisconsin’s primary air hub. For a relatively small regional airport, DCRA has surprisingly good coverage in the continental United States. Direct flight destinations include Minneapolis-St. Paul, Chicago, Detroit, New York, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, and Las Vegas, among others.
DCRA’s Achilles’ heel is flight cost. Depending on the destination, time, and day of the flight, you can expect to pay anywhere from $100 to $200 less per round-trip ticket to fly into General Mitchell International Airport near Milwaukee, according to my research. If you can spare an extra 90 minutes to drive from there to Madison, it might be worth your while to fly into Milwaukee rather than DCRA.
Getting Around Madison
Once you’re settled in Madison, here’s what you need to know about getting around town.
Rental and Personal Vehicles
If you plan to venture outside the center of Madison during your stint in town, you’ll probably need a rental car. The best place to pick one up is Dane County Regional Airport. Most major car rental companies have outposts there.
Pricing isn’t as competitive as in larger cities – expect to pay at least $50 per day for a compact or midsize car – so think carefully about whether you’ll actually need a car in Madison. With some advance planning, you might be able to reduce your daily transportation costs below the daily cost of a rental car with a mix of public transportation, ridesharing, and (weather and fitness permitting) biking.
Driving in Madison isn’t as nerve-wracking as driving in bigger, more densely populated cities like Boston or San Francisco, but it’s not hassle-free either. Parking can be scarce in central neighborhoods. Expect to drive around the block a few times when trying to street-park downtown. Garages and municipal lots are more likely to have space. Figure on $1 to $2 per hour in metered street or lot spaces, depending on time of day and location.
Outside Madison’s core, street parking is generally free, but you still have to mind posted signs and prevailing regulations. Violations are cheap by big-city standards, but you’re still looking at $25 for an expired meter violation and upwards of $50 for more serious offenses.
In My Experience: Madison’s traffic enforcement crew is energetic. We street-parked overnight on a street cleaning day and left town $35 poorer. My advice: Play by the rules.
Public Transportation in Madison
Madison has a surprisingly comprehensive public transportation system overseen by Metro Transit. If you’re staying in the Isthmus or other close-in areas, you should be able to conduct most of your in-town business on the bus and your own two feet. Fares are reasonable:
- $2 for a one-way ride
- $5 for an unlimited day pass
- $17.25 for a 10-ride pass (great for weekend visitors)
- $65 for an unlimited 31-day pass (great for longer-term visitors)
Ridesharing and Vehicles for Hire
Madison has good ridesharing and traditional taxi coverage. Both Uber and Lyft operate in town and throughout the surrounding suburbs, well past Dane County Regional Airport.
Wait times are quite short in central Madison and busy regional hubs, including the airport. Fares are competitive too – expect to pay $15 for a ride from the airport to the Capitol area, and $17 to $19 for a ride from the airport to UW campus. Most point-to-point rides in central Madison top out at $12 or less. Surge pricing can push them higher, of course – expect to pay 100% to 200% more at peak periods, notably weekend late nights (when bar traffic is epic).
Madison has a fairly comprehensive bike sharing system operated by Madison BCycle. Most of the Isthmus and main UW campus have dense station coverage. Outlying neighborhoods have less reliable coverage, but much of the city remains within easy reach by bike. A network of well-maintained separated bike paths and on-road bike lanes, plus relatively flat topography, make Madison one of the Midwest’s best cities for cyclists.
All BCycle users must purchase memberships before riding. There are three membership tiers:
- Walk-Up Day Pass: $6 for 24 hours of unlimited 30-minute rides
- Madtown Monthly: $15 for one month of unlimited 60-minute rides, with automatic renewal each month
- Commuter Annual: $65 for one year of unlimited 30-minute rides, with manual renewal each year
Monthly and annual passes are only available online, so you need to do a little advance planning if you’re staying in Madison for a while. You can buy day passes at any Madison BCycle station.
If you run over your allotted ride period at any time, you’re subject to a $3 charge for every additional 30 minutes. The best way to avoid overages is simply to plan routes that hit operational Madison BCycle stations before the end of your ride period.
Where to Stay
Madison has plenty of hotels at a range of price points, plus a thriving short-term rental scene. While this is by no means a comprehensive list of tourist-friendly districts in and around Madison, you can use it as a start as you narrow down your lodging options:
- Dane County Regional Airport Area: More than a dozen name-brand motels, ranging from 2- to 4-star price points, light up the sprawling suburban district centered on the intersection of U.S. Highway 151 and Interstate 90/94/39, probably the busiest interchange in the entire Madison region. This area is also within sighting distance of Dane County Regional Airport. It’s therefore appropriate for road trippers seeking an easy exit from Madison and business travelers looking for affordable, known-quantity digs close to the airport.
- Capitol Area: Downtown Madison is another lively hotel district. Some of the city’s nicest hotels are found here – you can easily spend more than $200 per night for a prime room with a Capitol view if you’re so inclined. Lower-priced hotels, with rooms starting well under $100 per night, aren’t far away. The south and southeast shores of Lake Mendota harbor a few cute B&Bs with nightly rates starting in the $120 range (higher during peak visiting periods).
- Camp Randall Area: The neighborhoods around Camp Randall have a few name-brand hotels, mostly at the 2- and 3-star price points. If you’re in town for a game and don’t have a friend to bunk with, this is a logical place to start.
- Madison West: This suburban area west of central Madison is a lower-key version of the airport district. Expect to pay anywhere from $50 to $100 per night for a 2- or 3-star room here – possibly more on game weekends and other busy times of year.
- Middleton: A few miles north of Madison West is Middleton, a tidy suburb with comparable offerings. This is a good place to stay if business takes you to the west side of Madison and you’re not concerned about missing out on downtown’s street life.
- East Isthmus: The eastern end of the Isthmus is a leafy montage of walkable residential and commercial blocks. Though it has a few hotels, it’s a better bet for visitors seeking short-term rental accommodations through Airbnb or HomeAway. If you’re willing to share space with a grad student or post up in an empty nester’s spare bedroom, you can pay as little as $20 to $30 per night here during the off-season.
Madison is a great place to visit in its own right, but it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. About 250 miles by road to the northwest is Minneapolis-St. Paul, a bigger metro area with world-class parks and cultural institutions. Some 150 miles by road to the southeast is Chicago, which needs no introduction. And Madison is a mere stone’s throw from Milwaukee, an underrated hub that’s done much to put its gritty industrial past to bed. If you have more time on your hands and a reliable means of transportation around the region, why not check out all four?
Have you ever been to Madison? What’s your favorite thing to do there?